A Dog Could Be Your Child’s Im­mune Sys­tem’s Best Friend

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A new study from the Univer­sity of Al­berta shows that ba­bies who grow up around a pet are health­ier than those who do not.

This is not, how­ever, the old story about the un­con­di­tional love of pets and the ex­er­cise chil­dren get by hav­ing a pet around. It is more com­pli­cated and a lot more amaz­ing than that.

The study, which covers two decades of work by Anita Kozyrskyj, a Univer­sity of Al­berta epi­demi­ol­o­gist, looked at fe­cal sam­ples from in­fants who took part in the Cana­dian Healthy In­fant Lon­gi­tu­di­nal De­vel­op­ment Study. It con­cluded, among other things, that ba­bies who are around a pet (70% of which were dogs in the study) have lower rates of asthma.

Kozyrskyj and Hein Min Tun, the co-au­thor of the study and a Univer­sity of Al­berta post-doc­toral fel­low, took the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to yet an­other level by dig­ging deeper. Kozyrskyj, one of the world’s pre-em­i­nent re­searchers on gut mi­crobes (mi­cro- or­gan­isms that live within the hu­man di­ges­tive tract and that have been linked to deeper un­der­stand­ings of can­cer and other dis­eases), wanted to un­der­stand what might be dif­fer­ent in the gut mi­crobes of ba­bies ex­posed to a pet when very young. What she, Hein Min Tun and her team of 11 other re­searchers found was that, for ba­bies ex­posed to a pet while still in the womb and up to three months after birth, the bac­te­rial types Ru­minococ­cus and Os­cil­lospira show up in sig­nif­i­cantly higher quan­ti­ties in those ba­bies’ guts. The first of these is as­so­ci­ated with re­duced child­hood al­ler­gies. The sec­ond is re­lated to re­duced obe­sity.

Other analy­ses showed that it is not just the ba­bies who ben­e­fit from hav­ing a pet around at the right time. For ex­pec­tant moth­ers, the data showed that moth­ers-to-be who are around a pet have a re­duced like­li­hood of trans­mis­sion of vagi­nal GBS (also known as Group B Strep) dur­ing birth. This type of strep causes pneu­mo­nia in new­borns and

is most of­ten han­dled by giv­ing moth­ers an­tibi­otics dur­ing their preg­nancy.

How this all works is still un­clear. With the com­mon thread be­ing the pres­ence of a pet, one the­ory is that dirt and bac­te­ria car­ried on a pet and even in its own gut mi­crobes are some­how be­ing trans­mit­ted to the ex­pec­tant mother and the baby. It could be by sheer prox­im­ity or by direct pickup and con­tact, such as by touch or con­tam­i­na­tion of the pet.

De­tails of the study also sug­gest that two things are go­ing on at the same time. There is first what the sci­en­tists re­fer to as “a healthy mi­cro­bial ex­change” be­tween the mi­crobes in and around the baby and in and around the pet, some of which come from in­side the an­i­mal and some of which are tracked in from the sur­round­ings. The sec­ond in­volves how the baby’s own im­mune sys­tem re­sponds to those mi­crobes by build­ing up its own an­ti­bod­ies.

When the baby is in the womb, such as in the case of vagi­nal GBS, both the ex­pec­tant mother and the fe­tus ben­e­fit from the same ex­po­sure at the same time through a likely very sim­i­lar process. Be­sides that this ap­pears to lower the risk of Group B Strep at birth, it could also min­i­mize the need for the nor­mal an­tibi­otics ad­min­is­tered to the mother prior to child­birth. That is im­por­tant not just for the mother but also be­cause it ap­pears that giv­ing those an­tibi­otics prior to birth tends to re­duce the pres­ence of cer­tain im­por­tant, “good” gut mi­crobes in the baby-to-be.

The re­searchers have spec­u­lated that some ea­ger phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies are look­ing to cash in on this re­search and cre­ate the equiv­a­lent of a “dog in a pill” or an in­jec­tion to recre­ate the same ef­fects. That is un­for­tu­nately prob­a­bly true. And they will likely come up with some fancy trade­marks, heavy ad­ver­tis­ing and other ways to con­vince doc­tors to pre­scribe it to their pa­tients and prospec­tive pa­tients to de­mand it.

For­tu­nately for hu­man­ity and our pets, that sce­nario will thank­fully never come to pass. Be­cause, be­sides the unique na­ture of the en­vi­ron­ment, the con­stant mi­cro­bial ex­change be­tween ba­bies and the pets around them and the many un­knowns in how the im­mune sys­tem and gut work, some­how “tak­ing a pill” seems a way too ster­ile ap­proach to what ap­pears to be one more of life’s happy ac­ci­dents.

And be­sides that, when was the last time you could teach a pill to fetch, roll over, jump up on your lap or lick your face?

Photo by ed­in­ababy, CC

Photo by In­ter­net Ar­chive Book Im­ages, CC

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